- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 30, 2002

The Justice Department's announcement yesterday of a 20-count complaint charging John Allen Muhammad in the deaths of seven persons in the recent sniper killings is a welcome development. It gives the federal government more time to hold Mr. Muhammad and his suspected partner in crime, John Lee Malvo, while a growing number of states sort out which should take the lead in indicting and prosecuting the pair.

To death penalty supporters, one major factor mitigating against the feds prosecuting the case is the fact that federal death penalty law does not allow the execution of murderers who are under 18 years of age. Mr. Malvo is believed to be 17. While Messrs. Muhammad and Malvo may be responsible for several unsolved murders in the states of Washington and Alabama, the legal wrangling taking place right now centers on Montgomery County, Md., where six of the killings took place, and the state of Virginia, where three of the murders occurred.

Over the weekend, Montgomery County States Attorney Douglas Gansler filed murder charges against the pair. He is lobbying to hold the first Muhammad-Malvo murder trial in his jurisdiction, and plans to seek the death penalty against Mr. Muhammad.

Ordinarily, it would make sense to begin legal proceedings against these alleged serial killers in the jurisdiction where most of the slayings took place. But this is no ordinary case. We strongly believe that if Messrs. Muhammad and Malvo are convicted of these horrific crimes that capital punishment is in order. But, recent history and current political conditions make the state of Maryland one of the last places one would expect to see justice carried out competently and expeditiously, particularly in cases involving the death penalty. Virginia is far better suited to try the case.

For all intents and purposes, there is no functioning death penalty in Maryland. Since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, there have been 86 executions in Virginia, and just three in Maryland. Maryland law prohibits executing persons under age 18 no matter how heinous the crime. In Virginia, convicted murderers 16 and up may be executed. Moreover, in Maryland, there may be serious problems in getting a death sentence using the legal approach Mr. Gansler (a supporter of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who successfully lobbied Gov. Parris Glendening to impose the state's current moratorium on executions) wants to use.

To qualify for a death sentence in Maryland, a defendant must be convicted of first-degree murder and meet one of 10 aggravating circumstances. Mr. Gansler said that, as an aggravating circumstance in the Muhammad case, he would use the fact that more than one slaying was committed "arising out of the same incident." Baltimore County State's Attorney Sandra O'Connor, whose office has tried more death penalty cases than any other jurisdiction in Maryland, however, says Mr. Gansler is wrong. Maryland's capital punishment statute would not apply, she said, because the murders occurred at different times and places. "It's not one incident," she said. "If you're going to have a statute, it should cover serial murders, but wishing doesn't make it so."

For all of the above reasons, the Justice Department must see to it that Virginia, not Maryland, is the first to prosecute the murder suspects.

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